“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” ― Frederick Douglass
Midtown Manhattan is thousands of miles away from PS 123 in Harlem in status but converts to five statute miles. The community, which begins north of 116th street in Manhattan, was once a proud Italian and Jewish community. A proud African American community is known for blues and jazz, the original American musical genre. Then politicians and activists discovered they could make more money screaming about poverty than curing it. So they did what undertakers do, turn tragedy into a good living.
Harlem has been called the story of decline and failure. More accurately, people declined, politicians failed. The arsenal of weapons employed by demagogues went from fear-mongering to social justice, and now, a toxic cocktail of resentment, drugs, crime, and poverty. The next thing out of the pundit’s mouth is “things are hopeless.” Guess what, dude, all you care about is the all-important god of publicity. The skills to run a major complex organization, the kind Jeff Bezos has, is missing in major cities, and the people are suffering. For example, when graffiti got out of control, a New York mayor called it art. Pretty soon, it crept everywhere. Corrupt politicians got to keep their jobs forever.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface, and the Spirit hovered over the waters.
Bill de Blasio, New York’s current Mayor, a paragon of incompetence, is a child of German heritage masquerading as ethnic, whose original name was Warren Wilhelm Jr. De Blasio or Willhelm, if you want to be accurate, believes $35 million on racial bias consulting for Hispanic teachers is a better route for children than mousepads for computers. I know, because I had to buy them.
Former students of Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan recall his critique of tolerance as defining deviance down. That is when improper activity is treated sympathetically. The actual victim and not the criminal takes on victim-like status. If Thomas Hobbes were investigating life prospects in the inner city, he would say life in Harlem is nasty, brutish, and solitary. I was on a mission to find out why I could do anything, and was poverty the absence of wealth, or was it something else entirely?
In 1996, the city was poor, and I had hope things would improve under a phenomenal mayor, Rudy Giuliani. He inspired me to volunteer for a teaching assignment at PS 123. Every Tuesday, I would drive up from my office to Riverside Drive and head north. From my window, I could see boarded storefronts, dilapidated townhouses with iron bars on the windows, and not just the ground floor. I thought, who burgles the second floor? An acrobat?
For anyone in need of energy before running a marathon, fast food stores sold mounds of fries, greasy burgers, and cheese that could be had on just about anything, and if you loved spicy chicken, it was the place. I had the driver let me off a half-block away from the school. I thought it was better to walk than hear students call me “the limo teacher.” It could be a stumbling block. I was in for a surprise. As they say, you really don’t know what you don’t know — until a fifth-grader tells you. When you hear what the teachers had to say, it is even more shocking.
Here are some comments from a parents and teachers website about PS 123:
“Students fight each other on almost a daily basis. If they say that they are “playing,” no one is held accountable.
“Students regularly curse their teachers. Parents also threaten teachers.”
“For teachers who are considering work. the middle school has almost 100 percent turnover.”
“The school is surrounded by domestic violence shelters.”
“Students are jeopardizing teachers’ safety.”
“Teachers are subject to allegations by students — the politics are not in your favor.”
“I am praying for this school. It is so poorly managed. The leadership shows disdain for the students.”’
I entered the reinforced glass and steel front door, and Jean Claude was there to meet me, a Haitian refugee who became a 5th-grade teacher of economics and computers at PS 123, and a man that would introduce me to the young boy who changed my life.
My class of 25 African American and Latino students looked like they had answered a casting call for a football team, a poetry reading contest, and a ballet recital. They were tall, robust, slight, dainty, and short, rolled into one classroom. But what struck me were the eyes. Blazingly bright, shiny, they looked at me dressed in a business suit as if I had arrived from some far-away place. I would later find out, there was only one thing they needed to know about me, and it would come up most unexpectedly.
I began by telling them a bit about my job. In early November, I asked them if their parents took them around to trick or treat on Halloween the night before. I thought that would be a good ice breaker. Who doesn’t love Halloween? Only two raised their hands. This was strange; maybe they didn’t celebrate Halloween? Hard to imagine. I inquired what was going on, and one of them said, “we don’t live with our parents.” Oh, that. They lived with grandparents because mom and dad had disappeared into the prison system or drugs or just abandoned. This was going to be interesting.
Jean Claude told me PS 123 fell into the top third of Harlem elementary schools, and the class I was assigned was in the top third of the school. It meant I was teaching the top 10% of Harlem students. I didn’t know if he meant that as a compliment to the students or as an indication of how fortunate I was. What I experienced that day would open up my eyes to the wonder of children but their ability to find their way under any circumstances. In fact, it may be they were in a better position to succeed than the kids on Fifth avenue because they knew exactly what they wanted to be. To survive, they had to.
At the end of class, one child named Troy raised his hand and said, “can I ax you a personal question?” I wasn’t concerned about the question, but I was about mispronunciation. I asked him to repeat it, but to pronounce the word correctly, a-s-k, I mouthed to him. No chance. Ax, ax, ax, he repeatedly tried to say it right, but the old version stuck. Then I checked; none of the children could pronounce “ask.” All said, “ax.”
One of my modules was about job interviews, and I thought it felt like a minor point given the world they lived in, the problems they had both at home and school, the lack of funding, even as I thought to myself the lack of mousepads. Why would I bother spending time teaching them how to say ask. But the reason is that these habits may be quaint or acceptable within the Harlem geography. Still, I thought one day they might be on Wall Street of Madison Avenue or Silicon Valley, and then the damn spiral down will begin all over again because I didn’t take the time to teach them to say ask. It was a small gesture, but I thought, let’s try to fix this thing.
The class was the week of Halloween. I said to them, what are you going to wear on your face on Halloween and they all responded, “a mask. “I said from now on, say, “can I mask you a question.” They could do this without difficulty, and everyone started raising their hands and masking a question. I still don’t know to this day if it was simply amusing or it really helped, but they learned how to pronounce the word ask, and it set them apart from every other student in Harlem. (Ironically, my autocorrect does not want me to use the word mask in place of ask and has as much trouble typing mask as the children had saying ask.)
I went back to Troy and said to him, now what was it you wanted to “mask” me? I began using the word to be simpatico and make it seem ordinary. Troy beamed. He had one of those infectious, impish smiles that melted teacher’s hearts, who could be a naughty boy but you loved him more, and asked or axed or masked, “Are you rich?”
When a fifth-grader asks a question, he’s not posing, and he’s genuinely curious. You know he’s telling you the truth because thirteen-year-olds don’t like never lie as a rule, unless they are caught doing something naughty, then they always lie.
A thousand thoughts when through my mind. I wasn’t prepared. If I said yes, would they feel alienated? It was bad enough I was the white limo teacher. Second, what does rich mean? How do you explain that to a group of children whose parents are incarcerated? Would it inspire or threaten? Would they feel inferior? I did what people do under these circumstances as he sat there patiently, waiting for an answer. I answered the question with a question,
“What do you think, Troy?”
“I think you are wealthy. I’ve seen you in a stretch limousine.” Good one. Again, speechless.
“Do you want to be rich, Troy? Then, do any of you?”
If you want to get a unanimous vote from a group of children, other than asking about ice cream, ask who wants to be rich. They knew something that ordinarily only the “ultras” or people living extraordinary lives understand, that the most important thing is to have options.
When I finished my volunteer teaching duties, I kept in touch, reached out, and offered advice. Over the years, naturally, they went their own way. One day, I read in the local paper, but the New York City city council defeated a charter school program because they felt it would inflict stress on the public school system. What are we to do? There isn’t much hope.
Impoverished families, dysfunctional communities, crime and substance abuse, weren’t things far from my life. While my early years were out of a storybook, the later years were more like a horror film. Divorce, alcoholism, physical abuse, trouble with the law were all constants in my formative years. Yet I rose out of them. I told myself that my father’s strict rules brought me back to the righteous path, although now I’m not sure. There were several factors, and I realized the same was at work with my kids at PS 123.
Hope is everywhere. You find it in grandparents who raise their children’s children. We wish it were unnecessary, but let’s be thankful they are doing it. Jean Claude did not need to work in Harlem. He could have taught French in a private school. Meager as it was, the school did not offer a computer class. The teacher volunteer program was a distraction. Why did they spend the time on it? A student decides to use the word ‘mask’ instead of ‘ask’ like everyone she knows because she wants to get ahead, and her teacher, whom she hardly knows, promises her it might lead to a better life. Hope is asking if the teacher is rich, not because of greed but because you need something to aim for, and if he’s got it, maybe you can. You want the truth, no bullshit, and ask him directly.
The only thing holding these kids back from succeeding was that they lacked choices. They had drive, smarts, and most importantly, a way to make things happen. I found that what these students lacked with someone who cared about them personally and professionally. As we got to know each other, I got to know what motivated them and what stood in the way of their progress. If I had ten more weeks with them, I might have made a difference. As it was, I hope I made a dent. They deserve it. Troy, Savannah, and all of you lovely children from PS 123, I hope only the best for you. You deserve it.
I received an email from one of the boys who asked if I was ever left behind in school. It was one of the few times in my life I can recall wishing that I had been. In those days, being left behind scarred you. I worked up an answer that he was a child who had gifts that took longer to unwrap. I’m still not sure if he felt better, but I did. It was a hard question, one of many. Call it a random act of kindness.
Actually, we don’t need an author of fiction to tell us what happens to children born into these circumstances. A study conducted by the NCBI in 2015 made it quite clear that “the accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in America today.”
“The accident of birth is a principal source of inequality in children in America today.” — NCBI Study 2015
- The study examined 424 children, nearly half African American, from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods between 1997 and 2002 to see what happens to lives caught up in a maelstrom of poverty and dysfunction. They were first-graders with an average age of six. In the African American sample, 63% of families had an annual income of less than $20,000. Nearly 31% had one or more parental adversities, and less than 14% lived with a father in the same house. Here are the findings:
- Children are disadvantaged beginning in infancy.
- More than 50% of the children’s households experience parental arrest, drug or alcohol use, or other criminal activities.
- Only 2% go to high performing schools.
- Only 14% live with their father in the same household.
- Having a father in the household significantly reduced the risk of behavioral problems and repeating a grade.
Walking around inner-city neighborhoods is something I do as a habit, some would say a dangerous habit, and not entirely to enjoy the cuisine one doesn’t find in other parts of the city. As I watch kids in the streets, I see multiple dysfunctions manifested in a very young person who has nowhere to turn and few resources to draw upon from a clinical perspective. Too much burden on one small body, a variant of multiple personality disorder which I call ‘multiple dysfunction disorder.” As the study above shows, it can become a life sentence and often a death sentence.
Community and social activists are of no help. They care about the 1% because it drives donations on GoFundMe pages but turn their heads away from the harder problems of the 2% of African American children who go to lousy schools and 14% who don’t live with their father. The system stinks, and no child is intended to be left behind, but that’s how it is, and it’s killing our children.
There are solutions if you can call them that. We could move everyone to a commune and grow squash. The requirement is one must really love squash. Relocate to a more paternal system of government and escape the misery of what Thoreau called a life of quiet desperation. Still, if you ask citizens of totalitarian bureaucracies like North Korea and Venezuela, who welcome any of Lenin’s “useful idiots” who will promote their socialist nonsense, they’ll tell you as a street sign outside my building said, “don’t even think about parking in this space.”